EPL 2016/17: Manchester United close in on fourth place with much-needed win against Middlesbrough
Manchester United saw out the game against Middlesbrough to go three points off fourth-placed Liverpool.
It could have been so different for Manchester United. The game started off in a similar scenario to what we have seen all season: José Mourinho’s men dominated possession, played in the right areas of the pitch, created good chances, but could not be clinical in front of goal.
However, after an Ashley Young cross found Marouane Fellaini’s head in the 30th minute, Manchester United took the lead they so richly deserved. It was like being transported back to 2008.
In a critical period of the season, with an international break taking place in the next two weeks, it was paramount that Mourinho’s team claimed the three points to climb up to fifth place.
The season’s not over by any shout, and, although the Europa League is probably the easier route to gain Champions League qualification, they should still keep one eye on the Premier League.
Sitting in fifth place, one point behind Liverpool in fourth, with a game in hand, the Portuguese boss should be pleased with his team’s resurgence. It was a difficult start to the season, but since United’s hammering against Chelsea in October, the Red Devils are unbeaten in 18 games.
Rashford needs to step up in Ibra’s absence
Marcus Rashford, for all his intelligent runs and pace in-behind, needs to work on his finishing. It is easy to forget that the England international is still only 19 years old. So young, but incredibly mature on the football pitch.
When his finishing improves, and he can routinely dispatch one-on-ones, Rashford will be a world-class striker. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic's absence, he is a great replacement as he offers something different: Rashford has the pace to stretch the opposition’s defence and create holes for the likes of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard to exploit.
In the second half, a similar pattern ran its course. When Middlesbrough tried to attack and bring men forward, the Red Devils would turn defence into attack in a split second.
When Lingard broke away down the pitch in the 62nd minute, fans were screaming for him to find a pass into Rashford’s path, however, the winger had the confidence to open up his body and strike a rocket in Victor Valdes’ top corner. There was no stopping it.
Pragmatic if not sparkling
With a 2-0 lead, Man United shut up shop and played out the remaining minutes. It was not their best performance, but then it did not have to be.
Interestingly, and to the discomfort of the majority of Man United’s fans, Mourinho played the last 20 minutes with a back six. It was remarkable to see four centre backs occupy such a small area of the pitch, with Young and Valencia on either flank.
The confusion in the box – brought on by the overcrowded area – led to Middlesbrough’s Rudy Gestede scoring a goal to provide hope. Unfortunately for the home fans, nothing was to be made of the goal as Valencia pounced upon a gift from Valdés and made the game 3-1.
It was baffling from Mourinho, but, somehow, it worked. It might not have against a different team, but it did against Middlesbrough and the three points are all that matters.
Easy run in?
Manchester United have three Premier League games before their Europa League quarter-final tie against Anderlecht.
West Brom and Everton will travel to Old Trafford before Sunderland host the Red Devils. On paper, all three games are winnable, but there are always exceptions.
Tony Pulis has done a miraculous job with the midlands club, making them very hard to break down. They might not score too many goals, but they have a rock-like defence that is incredibly organised.
Everton have always been Man United’s ‘bogey’ team – especially away from home. But, given it is at Old Trafford, Mourinho’s men should come through unscathed and with the three points. It will not be easy, but with players – such as Pogba and Mkhitaryan – back to full fitness, it should be made a lot easier.
Traveling to the Stadium of Light will not be an easy fixture, either, given that the Black Cats are in a relegation fight – although, perhaps they have already given up hope of survival. Depending on which Sunderland turn up, it could be a difficult game to negotiate.
There is plenty to play for from now until the end of the season, with 33 points still up for grabs for United.
They now sit three – or four/six depending on the result of Manchester City vs Liverpool – points off fourth-placed Liverpool with two games in hand. The extra fixtures might be against Manchester City and Southampton, but there is always a chance to claw themselves back in this fight.
Squad rotation will play a major role
The Europa League might be the best route to take given it is also another trophy which Manchester United have never won, but they should not take their foot off the gas in the Premier League.
Mourinho has a large squad for this exact reason and should look to utilise someone like Bastian Schweinsteiger in some of the Premier League games. The German World Cup-winning midfielder has a vast amount of experience and still has the ability to have an effect on a game.
Before Pogba’s injury against FC Rostov, the Frenchman looked exhausted. He had been playing two games per week, every week since joining in August. Albeit it is an injury from which he needs to recover, but the rest will do him a world of good.
There is no reason why United cannot finish in the top four while also winning the Europa League – but they are going to have to be on top form and make sure they rotate the squad to avoid fatigue.